Desertfest 2024: A Journey Through Hypnotic Heaviness And Psychedelic Wonder

Attending Desertfest for the first time, I found it relaxed, laid back and friendly with very enthusiastic and appreciative crowds filling the venues to capacity. Of the bands which landed their diverse spacecrafts in Camden Town on this sunny Saturday in May, most bands were new to me, and there were some unexpectedly good surprises.

Desertfest – Saturday 18 May 2024

Words: Marisa Adams

Kal-El – The Underworld – 14:15-15:00

In front of a packed crowd in the Camden Underworld, Norway’s Kal-El kicked off Saturday’s proceedings with an atmospheric monastic chant, which launched into the driving, hypnotic heaviness of their opener, recent 2-track EP Moon People.

Kal-El - Desertfest - Saturday 18 May 2024
Kal-El – Desertfest – The Underworld – Saturday 18 May 2024. Photo: Tim Bugbee

They were well settled into their sound, which was mature and solid: a huge fuzzy, crater-pocked, metallic asteroid cracked open here and there to reveal strata of blues, with psychedelic tracers looping and spiralling outwards which enveloped and carried the listener along with affable languor.

Kal-El - Desertfest - Saturday 18 May 2024
Kal-El – Desertfest – The Underworld – Saturday 18 May 2024. Photo: Tim Bugbee

Growing and opening out with verve and heavy colour, we were eased nicely into a sofa-like nimbus of doomy good vibes, from which to enjoy generous riffs and drums as if watching avalanches play out upon the asteroid’s surface from high up in its polychromatic atmosphere.

Kal-El - Desertfest - Saturday 18 May 2024
Kal-El – Desertfest – The Underworld – Saturday 18 May 2024. Photo: Tim Bugbee

There were catchy, satisfying hooks, swirling vocals and spacey lyrics, and plenty of energy and showmanship. Kal-El were obviously enjoying themselves and engaged and drew in the crowd who chanted along with matey exuberance. This was large and personable, like a bear hug from an old friend. A great opener to get everyone going. “We are Kal-El from Norway!” We will not forget you!

Kal-El - Desertfest - Saturday 18 May 2024
Kal-El – Desertfest – The Underworld – Saturday 18 May 2024. Photo: Tim Bugbee

We retreated to the Underworld bar at this point to take a breather and digest that thoroughly good opener and await the next band.

Sergeant Thunderhoof – The Underworld – 15:40 – 16:25

The crowd returned in droves, enthusiastically repopulating the Underworld for Bath’s heavy psychedelic rockers, Sergeant Thunderhoof. Weavers of lyrical, sorrowful, triumphant, humble and human stories, live they were a big, generous, open-hearted and engaging presence.

Sergeant Thunderhoof - Desertfest - Saturday 18 May 2024
Sergeant Thunderhoof – Desertfest – The Underworld – Saturday 18 May 2024. Photo: Tim Bugbee

A rounded, weighty sound with powerful, soaring vocals accompanied by satisfying melodic riffage and emphatic drums and lots of expansive movement on stage. Upon solid bedrock and rich soil of genre and technical mastery, swirling psychedelic riffs and belting anthemic choruses took off galloping through parting curtains of shifting reality, like a window to another time and place had opened up on this stage below the epicentre of bustle that is modern day urban Camden.

Sergeant Thunderhoof - Desertfest - Saturday 18 May 2024
Sergeant Thunderhoof – Desertfest – The Underworld – Saturday 18 May 2024. Photo: Tim Bugbee

With frequent eye contact, the packed audience was invited fully in and reciprocated warmly with familiarity and spirit. This was a great continuation of the energy which had opened the day.

I left friends enjoying the end of the set, emerged into blistering sunlight and quickly re-entered gloom again around the corner in the Black Heart to catch the opening of the next band there.

Lord Elephant – The Black Heart – 16:15 – 17:00

Florence’s Lord Elephant were underway when I arrived. Pushing through a crush of audience clustered at the back, there was still plenty of space near the front. An open oasis with a good view – at least for the time being – to be braved under the ultra-loud speakers.

Any remaining cobwebs were blown clean away upon this entry, encountering a meaty wall of deep, doomy psychedelic sludge saturated in blue light. The guitarist’s red glasses were the only other colour visible on any of the three band members and sucked at the attention, simultaneously evoking Mad Max desert Sci Fi insect-based Creature Features, and The Corinthian mixed incongruously with those 1970s and ’80s children’s cartoons clearly made by the tripping: Through The Red Eyes We Go!… 

Lord Elephant - Desertfest - Saturday 18 May 2024
Lord Elephant – Desertfest – The Black Heart – Saturday 18 May 2024. Photo: Sam Huddlestone

The clouds of multicoloured doom generated as these three dedicated psychonauts landed their eccentric interstellar craft upon this small stage in the middle of Camden swelled and metamorphosed as the guitarist and bassist worked their way through every facial expression imaginable and the drummer levitated in deep meditation.

Under this spell-casting wizardry, fuzzy swirls of heavy colour became buzzy saw edges, giant caterpillar treads, and flying elephantine monoliths which dissipated into lakes of heavy reverberation upon which driving blues-drenched grooves ploughed on in full sail. 

In rapt absorption, highly animated, engaging and with total commitment, they evoked grand cosmic tales of vast epochs, gathering the voluminous and deafening energy of the crowd as propulsion fuel for their next intergalactic jump.

I left to the final sounds of them blasting off into outer space, trailing a wake of incandescent iridescent sludge as they departed.

Diving once more out into crowded sunshine and back underground, I arrived in The Underworld with the next band having started.

Sunnata – The Underworld – 17:00 – 17:45

A bit of adjustment was needed to hear the subtle nuances after the bass-heavy submersion at the Black Heart, perhaps making the sound seem a little thin and unclear. But Sunnata is a band I am pleased to say I’ll be seeing later in the year. In the end though, the nuances sought me out. 

Sunnata - Desertfest - Saturday 18 May 2024
Sunnata – Desertfest – The Underworld – Saturday 18 May 2024. Photo: Sam Huddlestone

Spinning grungy, claustrophobic, hypnotic and sinister off-key harmonies with bubbling, simmering bass lines, Warsaw’s Sunnata wove a portal into a darkling landscape. A deep weirdness pervaded the gloom within and inserted stealthy tendrils through the portal directly into brain matter, altering insidiously, unhinging, gently liquifying, siphoning into this doomy shamanic realm.

There, elongated dirges of discordant, rasping lament accompanied unnerving, inventive bass lines. These built in intensity like semi-biological megaliths of unsettling form and lurking inhabitation sprouted out of the shadowed demesne, climbing skywards at disquieting angles under heavy driving grooves and subsiding back into melodic, melancholy sinkholes of somnolent elixir which lapped gently at their hushed shores.

Sunnata - Desertfest - Saturday 18 May 2024
Sunnata – Desertfest – The Underworld – Saturday 18 May 2024. Photo: Sam Huddlestone

The willing audience was taken by whatever still resembled a hand and pulled with eldritch abandon through this landscape by the trance-ensnared musicians until we stood atop the final tower, their first-ever song.

The animated audience descended with it in a hypnotising plummet as it collapsed back into the umbra with driving potency to the sound of a pair of banshees howling into the abyss, the final moments prolonged by fervent applause.

Sunnata - Desertfest - Saturday 18 May 2024
Sunnata – Desertfest – The Underworld – Saturday 18 May 2024. Photo: Sam Huddlestone

Emerging owlishly from this spell, I walked up to the Roundhouse in glorious sunshine along thronged streets, still very sad to have to miss Domkraft due to an unmanageable clash with Chicago’s Bongripper.

Arriving at the Roundhouse, the previous band, Acid King, had overrun by about half an hour – apparently due to technical difficulties – so I enjoyed the tail end of their doomscape, friends somewhere around. Bongripper to their credit were ready in around 10 minutes or so.

Bongripper – The Roundhouse – 18:10 – 19:10

This one was immense, starting like a juggernaut grinding inexorably into motion and, once underway, was relentless. They filled the large stage with a smouldering physicality, kindling into moments of controlled violence as the bass became percussion.

Bongripper - Desertfest - Saturday 18 May 2024
Bongripper – Desertfest – The Roundhouse – Saturday 18 May 2024. Photo: Jessy Lotti

It was like being subjected to geological processes: a journey to the underworld made by being pummelled into a planetary subduction zone and conveyed through crust, itself circulated in magma, ground up, disintegrated, reformed, unmade and made again, passing under land and sea, a speck lost in the interior vastness of this underground ocean of rock and fire, a dust mote tumbling through multiplying fractal caverns of unimaginable size opening out with potent solace, closing tightly around black torrents plunging down labyrinthine shafts into unseen alluvion’s thundering blindly towards vast grinding maws of rock, once more to be unmade. 

Bongripper - Desertfest - Saturday 18 May 2024
Bongripper – Desertfest – The Roundhouse – Saturday 18 May 2024. Photo: Tim Bugbee

The mesmerising intensity was maintained by both the band and the highly appreciative audience, aside from one moment when a smile cracked through for a section of the crowd who were chanting a request.

Bongripper - Desertfest - Saturday 18 May 2024
Bongripper – Desertfest – The Roundhouse – Saturday 18 May 2024. Photo: Tim Bugbee

It was an absolutely amazing live experience. I dragged myself away near the end and reunited with a similarly stunned friend on the street outside for the walk back to The Underworld, to find the other friend and get a good spot in the pit for Monkey3.

Monkey3 – The Underworld – 19:35 – 20:25

These epic psychedelic creations by Lausanne’s Monkey3 could be chronicles detailing the meanderings, discoveries and exquisite loneliness of an alien traversing the vastness of space, the last of an explorer species, all of whom besides itself perished in a tragedy of cosmic proportions.

Monkey3 - Desertfest - Saturday 18 May 2024
Monkey3 – Desertfest – The Underworld – Saturday 18 May 2024. Photo: Jessy Lotti

For all it knows, it is the last creature in the universe capable of appreciating beauty and meaning, but it travels through the cosmos in enduring hope, looking for company to share the splendour with. It has flown alongside comets, through vast nebulae and star nurseries of sublime radiance and colour, surfed the event horizon of black holes and skimmed over and down into galaxies of all sizes and shapes.

It has dodged asteroids in immense planetary debris fields and rings and investigated every habitable zone world it has encountered and all of the others just in case, seen sunsets, moonsets and planetsets of ineffable glory, and fantastical landscapes of every kind on scales grander than it could ever have imagined.

Monkey3 - Desertfest - Saturday 18 May 2024
Monkey3 – Desertfest – The Underworld – Saturday 18 May 2024. Photo: Jessy Lotti

Sometimes, it has found remnants of long-dead civilisations, such as great crumbling city planets and long-abandoned Dyson Spheres around cold, extinguished suns, but despite its long, long years of roving, it has never yet found any complex intelligent life forms. 

It made records of its peregrinations which it transmitted out on all wavelengths in its own language; at least some connection might be made this way, some time or other. And so on it went, engaging hyperdrive once more to catapult itself to the next potential life-supporting oasis in the immense cold, barren expanse of interstellar space.

Monkey3 - Desertfest - Saturday 18 May 2024
Monkey3 – Desertfest – The Underworld – Saturday 18 May 2024. Photo: Jessy Lotti

Perhaps it is long perished itself now, or perhaps it is still searching, but in its honour, its message, which was eventually picked up and by random fluke, deciphered, by a small group of humans in an eccentric, weathered but trusty spacecraft, is shared by them wherever they go.

The Underworld, then, became a place of gathering on this May evening on Earth, where some of these tales were told with great skill and in an atmosphere of warmth and friendship. Some had heard them before and had come to listen again, but there were always newcomers hearing them for the first time.

Monkey3 - Desertfest - Saturday 18 May 2024
Monkey3 – Desertfest – The Underworld – Saturday 18 May 2024. Photo: Jessy Lotti

The crowd responded exuberantly to the hope of each new hyperdrive, and, separated only by time and distance, shared with the alien in the beauty it had seen with rapt attention and applause.

During one particularly poignant moment in the tale, the two men in front of us were reunited with an old friend in the packed crowd, adding their own personal celebration. This was a moving, joyful, heavy and satisfyingly rounded immersive experience of many colours that shall hopefully be repeated before too long.

We propped ourselves happily on a table with a pint, after this, to await the next band.

Maserati – The Underworld – 20:50 – 21:50

Athens, Georgia’s purveyors of heavy electronic psychedelic post-rock got down to business with no messing about and delivered a full-tilt, big-hearted, freewheeling celebration of being alive, which bore the audience along like a tsunami.

Maserati - Desertfest - Saturday 18 May 2024
Maserati – Desertfest – The Underworld – Saturday 18 May 2024. Photo: Tim Bugbee

Interspersed with some slower, more hypnotic moments, there were generous waves of spacey galloping reverberating melodies with a hefty kick behind them. The drummer was at the front of the stage with his bandmates, a one-man souped-up engine bristling with cylinders and furiously whirring cogs like a steampunk pipe organ, working flat out as if possessed, dials all firmly in the red.

The tempo built during the set, and following a strategic break off stage where the rest of the band laid down a mellow interval, his arms became an impossible blur, morphing out of space and time at speeds exceeding 88 miles per hour as the guitarists and bassist bent double at their instruments, clinging to the tempo with the unswerving tenacity of stuntmen.

Maserati - Desertfest - Saturday 18 May 2024
Maserati – Desertfest – The Underworld – Saturday 18 May 2024. Photo: Tim Bugbee

Looking around with a huge smile on my face, I saw others in the crowd with the same expression. A group of lads in the front had long since stripped down to the waist and delivered the first mosh of the day that I had seen.

This was controlled chaos and abandon of the highest calibre, absolutely incredible and one of the firm highlights of the day.

Fun fuses thoroughly blown and unable to get into Acid Throne at The Devonshire Arms, we called it a day at that point and made our way home.

This is definitely one for next year’s calendar.

Maserati - Desertfest - Saturday 18 May 2024
Maserati – Desertfest – The Underworld – Saturday 18 May 2024. Photo: Tim Bugbee
The Underworld - Desertfest - Saturday 18 May 2024
Desertfest – The Underworld – Saturday 18 May 2024. Photo: Jessy Lotti
The Underworld - Desertfest - Saturday 18 May 2024
Desertfest – The Underworld – Saturday 18 May 2024. Photo: Jessy Lotti
The Underworld - Desertfest - Saturday 18 May 2024
Desertfest – The Underworld – Saturday 18 May 2024. Photo: Jessy Lotti

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